Why slavery is wrong

When I taught college composition, the question “Is slavery wrong?” was one I raised so that students could hone their argumentative skills while pausing to reflect on value of other human beings, and the nature of history (since of course, for Americans, the question evokes the Civil War, its origins, and its consequences, with which we still live).

In the commentary argument on Scientia Salon (linked in my previous post on ethics), at one point I raised the question “Is slavery wrong?” and followed that up with “And how did it go away?” which I reminded my interlocutor was a trick question. Surprisingly, my opponent in this debate refused to answer the question, which set off a fire storm in the comments. I tried to provide a broad surveillance over the issue, remarking the historical issues, as well as opposition to slavery from different perspectives, in an effort to draw my opponent into a direct discussion of both theoretical and practical ethics, but he refused this as well. So I never got around to putting forth my own position on the matter; so I would like to do that here.

First we must remember that there have been several forms of slavery practice historically, as well as some forms being practiced today – which is why “And how did it go away?” was a trick question.
However, all forms of slavery share two basic premises:
1. The slave, or those worthy to be enslaved, are either a) not truly human or b) some form of lesser human.
2. Because the slave is less than human or some sort of lesser human, the slave master is allowed total control over the body and life of the slave, without responsibility or account, much as in the same way that it is generally presumed that farmers have total control over the bodies and lives of livestock, or as we still presume that pet owners have total control over their pets.

If premise 1, a, cannot be allowed, then premise 2 cannot be allowed, since the argument that the slave is not human, and thus requires or somehow deserves total control, is simply nonsense.

Now, it is possible to argue that premise 1, b, that the slave is only some inferior human, will get us some sort of “humane” or relatively non-violent form of slavery, but this is not really the case. Regardless of degree, if it is allowed that the slave is human, in any measure, then arguing for such “humane” control is pointless, because some level of violence against another human will be inevitable in a slave-holding context. The fact is that if the slave-master has total control of the slave’s body and life, then whether he or she chooses to enact it is irrelevant – the point remains that whatever is done to the slave cannot be held to ethical, moral, or legal account. Thus the presumed “humane” character of the slave-holder’s behavior is subverted by the context in which such behavior occurs. (One cannot be a “humane” slave-holder, no matter how hard one tries.)

It should also be remembered that violence, force intervening in the behavior of another, need not engage physical action on the purveyor’s part; if the slave wishes to turn left down the road, and the slave master orders that he or she turn right, that is a violent denial of the slave’s own volition in the matter.

However, if we do assume premise 1, b, then an anti-slavery argument can be still be mounted. Even “lesser” humans, it can be argued, still obtain the rights and respect owed any human, just because they are intrinsically human. And of course, if we argue that they are human absolutely, without regard of any supposed degree, then slavery simply must be abolished as a thoroughly unjustified act of violence against another human being.

I raised this problem, first, in terms of the way the debates concerning slavery led up to its elimination in the US through the Civil War. My opponent on Scientia Salon tried to argue that, at least in America, many had simply taken a dislike to slavery and changed their opinions on it. But this can’t possibly be the case. As I noted at one point, slavery is a a perceived good for those of the slave-holding class, until some oppositional thought intervenes. So what was this oppositional thought?

There is an answer. In the debates leading up to the Civil War, one important point of disagreement had to do with the question of whether Africans were even human, and if they were, what kind of human were they. As political critics have noted, even most white abolitionists thought Africans as lesser human beings; but they were considered human being nonetheless. Some in the slavery apologists would not even grant that.

Let’s take that question and think them back through history a few hundred years. Europeans had always been aware of those of different ethnic origins than themselves, primarily from West Asia and North Africa. But the 15th century saw a major, rapid expansion of European experience with peoples of different ethnicity, colors, cultures, and languages, as European explorers, traders, and, of course, colonizers ranged the whole of the globe searching for greater wealth and (for some) new discoveries.

These experiences with many different cultures and many different peoples, raised the question of exactly what it meant to “be human.” In the raising of the question, certain unfortunate biases formed; but also, it became apparent that the definition of “human” could not be deployed to exclude those with whom we could learn to communicate – and those with whom we could procreate – without considerable corruption of reason. Thus many Europeans, and later Americans, were forced to include a wide variety of human life forms into their definition of “human” (an issue with which we struggle still today). In other words, the idea came first, what was felt about it came after.

So why did the Civil War happen? There were many cogent social, political, and largely economic issues involved; but I suggest that part of the problem was that many of the slave holders were simply adamant that Africans could not be human. Their feeling corrupted their reason; this was clearly not simply a matter of opinion – they were willing to die (and to kill) for a false definition of what it could possibly mean to be human.

The other example I gave during my Scientia Salon debate (again, unanswered), concerned, what could we say to a contemporary Romanian slave-master who has just bought a 13 year old Turkish girl (a quite unfortunately real instance of contemporary slavery). Yet the answer is quite clear. First, of course, it must be noted that we will not change the whore-master’s mind, he has money at stake! So our argument takes place in the realm of politics, and law, both locally and internationally. Our argument must be that i) a female is not a lesser form of human life; ii) a Turk is not a lesser form of human life; iii) any human life, just as being human, deserves the rights and respect of any other human life.

This last, iii, can be argued from many different perspectives – Christian, Kantian, Pragmatist, whatever. Yet surely its foundation is simple recognition that the human is what is most valuable to us, not because it is what we ‘feel,’ but because it is who we are.

Certain circumstances allow that we tolerate the total control of certain humans by others, given that they have transgressed shared values or laws egregiously (i.e., e.g., following the legal determination in a court of criminal law). But nothing allows us to tolerate this concerning peoples whose only transgression is being born a certain ethnicity or a certain gender.

The question of “lesser forms of human” is biologically dead, as it ought to be. But even if we were to accept this, here’s the problem: Whatever degree of being human, the existential fact of being human is absolute – we are either human or we are not. And if we are human, then we treat other humans as do ourselves. Whether we feel this or not, whether that is our opinion or not, reason demands it of us.


8 thoughts on “Why slavery is wrong

  1. I am not convinced the conditions 1a and 1b you give are necessary. In antiquity, the citizens of defeated cities where often sold as slaves. There are cases where greeks where sold by greeks (so the slaves where not necessarily barbarians). I don’t think that people thought of the enslaved as less human. It was a matter of power and violence, it was the right of the mighty.
    Invoking a theory that the slave is some form of lesser human is, it seems to me, already a defensive position that became necessary after a concept of human rights had appeared (e.g. in the US declaration of independence). To justify that you have slaves although the foundational document of your state is saying that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” requires the slaves to be excluded from the “all men” status. But where you don’t have an idea of such human rights, this is not necessary. Thus racism etc. became a necessary construction to justify slavery. In antiquity, it was not necessary.


  2. One afterthought on this: a good example is the story of how Plato was sold into slavery, see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D3%3Achapter%3D1
    I dont’t think that any of the people involved gave a moment’s thought on the question whether Plato was a full human being. All people involved where greeks and aristocrats. This was just a matter of power.
    Concepts of human rights seem to be a modern development, as are therories of racism. It looks like both evolved together. When there is a human-rights-ethics arround, you need something like racism (or another theory of justification, e.g. of declaring “Infidels” to have a different status) in order to justify slavery, colonialism, killing or expropriation of native people etc..


    • Nannus,
      I actually agree. The original project for this post involved a much longer historical discussion which would have addressed these issues; but it was tying me up, I needed to post it and move on. So I reduced my project to addressing the immediate issues of the original discussion on Scientia Salon.
      I also wish I could have better tied this post in with my previous one on ethics, since clearly what defines and also expresses our changing ideas concerning such issues is the political processes that gets us action and law, the record of which we call history.


    • Nannus,
      One caveat on reflection: the exercise of power in any slave-holding society certainly diminishes the slave’s status, even should the ontological condition of the slave remain unchallenged.
      However, again, I would have liked to have discussed further the many variations of slavery that have occurred in history, as the differences, and what these can tell us about social power, are actually fascinating. (E.g., Petronius’ Trimalchio buys his way out of slavery, and, grown rich, becomes a particularly brutish slave-holder himself. Really, there is so much in a slave system that re-enforces it, it actually takes considerable time and effort for a culture to unravel it.)
      Obviously these are issues needing consideration in greater depth.


      • I agree, and I think it is better to come out with an imperfect article and start the discussion than to try to write the complete and perfect thing. You can always add another post or comment to expand it. That is what is nice in blogging, as compared to books.
        On the subject of books, I am sure there must be a large literature on these topics, both on the history of slavery and on its philosophical or ethical aspects.


  3. Hi ej,

    I raised the question “Is slavery wrong?” … Surprisingly, my opponent in this debate refused to answer the question, …

    Or, more to the point your opponent asked what your question meant, specifically what “is X wrong?” is actually asking. If human ethics derive from human value judgements (as I asserted) then the question becomes “does slavery conflict with human value judgements?”, or something like: “Is slavery a violation of the social contract by which humans today have agreed to treat each other?”. If you had clarified that that is what you were asking then we could have proceeded to an answer (which is “mostly, yes”).

    My opponent on Scientia Salon tried to argue that, at least in America, many had simply taken a dislike to slavery and changed their opinions on it. But this can’t possibly be the case.

    First, I did not use the word “simply” and nor did I assert that there was anything “simple” about the process by which groups of humans come to change their opinions on such things. But, I stand by my claim. If you’d have held a poll around 1800 of white adults in the American South then you’d have got a large number claiming that slavery was morally acceptable. If you took the same poll today you’d get a vastly smaller answer. It is a fact that society as a whole has changed its mind over this issue over the centuries. And that is why we no longer have (much) slavery in the West today (which is what you asked).

    Yet surely its foundation is simple recognition that the human is what is most valuable to us, not because it is what we ‘feel,’ but because it is who we are.

    The first half of that appears to be in line with my claim that, at root, morals are human value judgements (“… what is most valuable to us …”). I’m not sure how saying “… because it is who we are” adds anything to that.

    And if we are human, then we treat other humans as do ourselves. Whether we feel this or not, whether that is our opinion or not, reason demands it of us.

    Sorry, but I don’t see any way in which reason alone demands that. You also have to invoke a human value judgement, as you did in the previous quote. Your whole piece here seems to me an attempt to rationalise a position that you’ve actually arrived at primarily as a value judgement.


    • Coel,
      Thank you for your comment. Re-phrasing your position in terms of value judgments clarifies much, and if I missed this on Scientia Salon, I apologize. Certainly in terms of value judgments, and their historical change, we have much to agree on.
      “Reason demands it” puts a flourish on it, but the basic idea is that rationally, once we allow the humanness of others, then clearly we must allow them the respect and rights that we wish for ourselves; otherwise, we are left with the possibility of violent confrontation, and even the possible collapse of respect itself in the social realm. The evidence for this possibility is too clear (e.g., ISIS).
      “… because it is who we are” is again a rhetorical flourish, but it points to the basic assumption that we are rational beings as well as feeling beings. I can’t accept some notions that reasoned ethics are mere rationalizations. I believe that we need an assortment of explanations and thought processes to get any ethics or informed practice. Value judgments are judgments at all because, whatever their originating premises, they are reasonably judged.


      • Hi ej, OK, so we’re not far from agreement. You’re right that, for example, reason can tell us that one course of action will lead to violent confrontation. But even that then depends on the value judgement that violent confrontation is a bad thing. Even if the violence led to the collapse of civilisation and mass deaths all round, that is still only “bad” if and because humans judge it so.

        That is why I was insisting that human morality can only be rooted in human values (or feelings or opinions, or whatever word we use). That means that morals are subjective (since a human value judgement is by definition subjective) and thus that moral realism is false.

        (The alternative of moral realism being that something can be “morally wrong” independently of any human judgement, which is a concept that doesn’t make any sense to me.)

        Anyhow, that was the basic point I was trying to argue for (moral realism is false; morals derive from human value judgements), though perhaps the whole discussion might have been better handled all round,
        Cheers, Coel.


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